As “the new millennium” approached, there were endless arguments over whether we actually had cause to celebrate. The “Is it 2000 or 2001?” debate continues, but certainly no one would dispute that the number 100 represents a long life, a perfect score or the number of coffees available on the menu at Coffee House Poem.
Though the variety might suit our modern lives, Coffee House Poem is actually modeled after the tea salons of 18th-century England, where people would gather to discuss politics and culture. Coffee House Poem has attempted to carry on the tradition, with occasional poetry readings (sans bongos), acoustic concerts and the bimonthly Poem Press, an entertaining hodgepodge of coffee bean sagas, recipes and commentary from staff and customers. With the added plus of a dazzling menu, Coffee House Poem brings a lot to the table — literally.
On a rainy January afternoon at CHP in Shibuya, Toyonari Yamanouchi, CHP’s young president, explained how his late father Toyoyuki opened the first CHP in Asagaya in 1966, hoping it would be not only a comfortable hangout for creative types, but also a support for his family while he pursued a screenwriting career.
Coffee was still considered a “foreign” drink in the late ’60s, with only the best hotels able to afford high-quality coffee beans. In order to attract and maintain a steady clientele (“. . . and because we needed to eat,” adds Toyonari), the elder Yamanouchi let his screenwriting career go. Focusing his energies on CHP, he created a chain by 1971, guaranteeing top-grade coffee to customers who had grown accustomed to it.
Competition, though, was soon nipping at Yamanouchi’s heels in the form of the datsusara (literally, “escaping salary”). These mid-’70s entrepreneurs were Japanese salarymen who boldly resigned from guaranteed lifetime posts to start their own businesses, mainly coffee or ramen shops.
Many of those establishments have since evaporated like so many clouds of steam, but CHP, with its enduring slogan of “Hyaku shurui no koohii (100 kinds of coffee)” is still percolating. There are over 25 CHP shops in the Tokyo area with branches in Okinawa, Sapporo, Yokohama and Osaka. Toyonari doesn’t hesitate to share CHP’s secrets for success, plying me with hazelnut latte, coffee Leman (named for and “designed” after the Swiss lake) and the ever-popular German roast (a sturdy everyday coffee), each served in its own matching handpainted china to enhance the experience.
CHP’s attentive and attractive service staff must memorize all 100 coffees, with a yearly “fall debut” of new choices. Fortunately, there are just 15 basic patterns, which are embellished with various liqueurs, creams and spices. Loyal customers’ preferences are remembered and custom coffees can be prepared, if the current array doesn’t match your mood.
Still, CHP has had to keep up with the times, expanding its menu to include the essential herb teas and the ubiquitous ethnic offerings (focaccia, Greek salad and pastrami wraps), which vanished from my plate in seconds.
In case you have a sweet tooth to appease, diet detractors also occupy a healthy portion of the CHP menu. Not 100 varieties, maybe, but the maple sugar, blue poppy seed chiffon, chocolate pound and cinnamon pumpkin cakes, all made on the premises with organic ingredients, might cajole you into putting off that workout until tomorrow. “Expensive,” smiles Toyonari, “but delicious.”
CHP Shibuya, with its burned sienna walls and autumn leaf-colored tablecloths, has a very “English country cottage” feeling, making it an easy place to work your way through the menu. One elderly customer, Toyonari points out, has been diligently doing so for the last several years. Comfortable though it is, Toyonari has decided to forego last century’s European look, as he says this century calls for a fusion of Japanese and American styles.
A makeover is slated for later this year, using wood from old Japanese homes and antique glass to convey a warm, traditional atmosphere. While “new and shocking” might attract customers, suggests Toyonari, “natural food and a natural interior will keep them.”
With coffees and edibles ranging from 500-1,000 yen (including a 300 yen recommended coffee and 750 yen brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. daily), plus a variety of teas, jams, handpainted china and Guatemalan worry dolls available for sale, CHP is a great place to escape if you get trapped in Shibuya’s teen jungle.
So, whatever century you are living in, put aside your differences long enough to celebrate them — 100 ways — at Coffee House Poem.